Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our times

May 7, 2019

Throughout the 20th century, critics regarded Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) as one of his lesser novels.  It didn’t have the huge menagerie of colorful, memorable characters that most of his novels did, nor did it provide much comic relief from its hard tale..

Hard Times is back in vogue because the philosophy of its central character, Thomas Gradgrind, is back in vogue.  Gradgrind is a schoolmaster and later Member of Parliament for Coketown, a stand-in for the gritty industrial city of Manchester.

Gradgrind’s philosophy is based on the famous fact-value distinction—the idea that facts are objective because they can be proved or disproved, but that values are subjective because they arise from personal feeling.

He operates a school devoted to rote memorization of facts—no games, no art or literature, no appeals to the imagination—and to a philosophy based on the ethic of rational self-interest.

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for.  Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything or render anybody help without purchase.  Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be.  Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter.  And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.

This was a living philosophy then, and it is a living philosophy still.  We now call it neoliberalism, and its adherents are to be found throughout Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the economics departments of great universities.

Gradgrind practices what he preaches.  He stifles sentiment and emotion in himself.  He denies himself the emotional intelligence to see through the boastful, hypocritical self-made industrialist, Josiah Bounderby.

He encourages his daughter, Louisa, to marry Bounderby, and his son, Tom, to go to work for him, as does his star pupil, Bitzer.

Louisa has a good heart, but she is morally adrift because she never is given any justification for the promptings of her heart.  Tom, on the other hand, lacks moral intuition, and is not taught anything to make up for the lack.  He is a self-destructive fool because his extreme self-absorption makes him unaware of the possible consequences of his actions until it is too late.

But it was Bitzer who is the most perfect representation of Gradgrind’s teachings.  He is diligent at his job, saves his money, doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble and guides his life by cost-benefit analysis.  When in the end he turns against Gradgrind in order to advance his career, he calmly justifies his decision by citing his old schoolmaster’s “excellent teaching” about self-interest.

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I read Hard Times as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  It was published the same year as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which was our group’s previous book.  Although there is no reason to think the two writers influenced each other, there are remarkable similarities.

Both have morally sensitive heroines with inadequate fathers.  Both depict self-made industrialists in conflict with labor unions.  Both make their noble worker character speak in a hard-to-understand dialect that sets him apart from all the others.  Both have their worker character ask the industrialist for help, and be rebuffed.

But the two novels are very different in both style and viewpoint.  North and South is an effort to give a fair and balanced account of conditions in 1850s Manchester.  Hard Times burns with indignation.

Gaskell’s Margaret Hale has a Christian faith that not only gives her a moral compass, but is a magnetic field that draws others into her influence.  Dickens’ Louisa has the same moral impulses as Margaret, but she has no philosophy or faith that would give her the confidence to act on them.
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Is it wrong to give to panhandlers?

December 2, 2017

The gift without the giver is bare.
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three —
himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.
         ==James Russell Lowell

It’s only during the past few years that I’ve started to give money to beggars.   Prior to that I budgeted certain sums of money for charity, including St. Joseph’s House and the House of Mercy, which serve the homeless poor and felt I had done my duty.

I don’t hold myself up as an example of how to give or how to live.   I am not saying you should give away anything at all—even assuming that you are well enough off that you have extra money to give.

I only say that if you act on a generous impulse, this is nothing to be ashamed of.

It is necessary to say this because of the prevailing neoliberal philosophy, exemplified in the Freakonomics books, that if you act on any motive except self-interest, this will backfire and you will do more harm than good.

These arguments came up in a reading group I belong to, currently reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   It begins with the Ebenezer Scrooge character refusing to contribute to a charity that buys Christmas dinners for poor people.

Scrooge says he pays taxes that pay for prisons and workhouses, where poor, unemployed people are sent.  He sees himself as a hard-working, self-supporting citizen, and sees no reason why he should contribute to support people who don’t work.

Some of us thought he had a point.  We also thought that giving to panhandlers was enabling alcohol and drug abuse habits.   One person even told a story about a street beggar in Washington, D.C., who was later found to have a vacation home in Florida.

I’ll use this blog to say what I should have said then.

First, panhandlers work.  They work hard.  I’ve never in my life worked as hard as they do, and for as little return.   Would you like to spend all day on the street, in all weathers, approaching strangers for money, risking humiliation and getting only small change or, at best, small bills in return?

It is true that panhandlers do no useful work.   But they are not unique in that respect.  Consider telemarketers, for example.   Some people are richly rewarded for doing harm.  Consider hedge fund managers and their role in the 2008 financial crash.

David Graeber wrote a good essay about the growing number of well-paid jobs that are considered meaningless even by people who do them.   He said as a general rule, the more obviously one’s benefits other people, the less likely one will be well paid for it

I myself get income without work, and more than a panhandler is likely to get.   I enjoy a Social Security pension, a company pension and income from savings and investments.

I could say the Social Security and company pensions are rewards for past work, although plenty of people who worked just as hard and created just as much value as I did receive no pensions.

But the income from savings and investments is simply a claim on the fruits of someone else’s labor.  Buying publicly traded stocks and bonds, in my case, in the form of mutual funds, adds nothing to the world’s total wealth.   It simply reflects the fact that, at a certain time in my life, I had more money than I needed.

I am not ashamed of investing in stocks and bonds.   A well-functioning free enterprise economy requires financial markets, and it might as well be me as somebody else who benefits from them.

But a well-functioning free enterprise system also requires that a certain percentage of people be unemployed.  Economists have a name for this, “the natural rate of unemployment.”

As to drug and alcohol abuse habits, these are found on all levels of society, including Hollywood and Wall Street.   In any case, if some panhandler has an alcohol or drug problem, the person isn’t going to change their life just because I refuse to give them anything.

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Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit and social class

November 21, 2017

I read Little Dorrit as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.   Reading the novel as part of group helped me appreciate how great Charles Dickens was—as a descriptive writer, as a storyteller and as a student of human nature.

The moral center of the novel is Amy Dorrit, a young woman born in the Marshalsea, a famous debtors’ prison in London, where her father has been imprisoned as a result of business failure.

She is called ‘Little’ Dorrit, rather than by her name, because she is small of stature and looks more like an adolescent girl than a full-grown woman.

She embodies the specifically Christian virtues.  She is loving, self-sacrificing, humble, forgiving, patient, devoted, uncomplaining and thankful for every blessing.  This makes her as out-of-place in class-conscious Victorian London as she would have been in the Rome of Quo Vadis or in success-seeking 21st century USA.

One of the themes of Little Dorrit is what we now would call “classism.”   The novel is full of characters whose life revolves around having other people acknowledge their social rank.   This includes, first and foremost, Little Dorrit’s own family

From a young age, she is a virtual parent to her father and her older brother and sister, for which they show little or no gratitude..  She learns how to read and write, learns marketable skills from other inmates and gets a job outside the prison to an elderly rich businesswoman, Mrs. Clennam.

Her father, William Dorrit, over the years creates an identity as “the Father of the Marshalsea,” to whom visitors and other debtors have to pay tribute and acknowledge his superior status.

Despite William’s dependence on Little Dorrit, he condemns her for befriending fellow inmates, such as the mentally retarded Maggie, because this undermines his pretensions to superior social rank.

Amy’s beautiful gold-digging older sister, Fanny, and shiftless older brother, Edward, take the same attitude.

Mrs. Clennam is the other character in the novel whose life is shaped by religion.  In contrast to Little Dorrit’s, her religion consists in obeying strict rules concerning personal conduct and business obligations, and in showing no mercy to those who do not.

Her religion makes her unhappy, and causes her to make others unhappy.

Little Dorrit is sometimes sad, but she is capable of being happy and she does nothing to make herself unhappy.

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Dickens vs. Trollope

October 31, 2016

I read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  We read it after reading the six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series and the six in his Palliser series.

Trollope was a good storyteller.  I got a lot of pleasure out of reading his novels.  But reading Dickens after reading Trollope gives me an added appreciation of the greatness of Dickens.

Both Dickens and Trollope created memorable and believable characters, whom we talked about as if they were real people.

charlesdickensbleakhousemd19091475224Trollope’s characters were like people I know, if the people I knew had grown up in Victorian England.  The women in the reading group said Trollope was remarkable for knowing how women talked among themselves when there were no men around.

A few of the Trollope characters were completely villainous, but were mixtures of good and bad, and Trollope regarded them with amused tolerance.

Dickens’ characters were much more extreme—the good ones were much better, the bad ones were much worse, the eccentric ones were much more strange, but they all were memorable and believable.

Both Trollope and Dickens were keen social observers.   Trollope was a keen observer of the middle and upper classes.  In fact, one of his protagonists was a Prime Minister.  But he treated the lower class as comic characters.

Dickens did not reach so high in his observations, but described the lives of the poor as sympathetically as the lives of the middle class.

He depicted characters on every level of society, from aristocrats to paupers in the slums, some caring and responsible, some hypocritical and self-deceiving and some cunning, manipulative and cruel.

He thought that no matter who you were, your moral choices made a difference, and he accordingly was much more judgmental than Trollope.

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